Imagine it’s mid-August...inservice week for teachers. You are working hard to set up your classroom for your new batch of students while at the same time attending professional development meetings, PLC meetings, etc. It’s hot and hectic. Then you receive a phone call you did not expect. The mammogram you had the week before is inconclusive. You must go in and have another. The second mammogram leads to a biopsy, which leads to a phone call on the Friday before school starts that no women ever wants to receive. You have breast cancer.
This exact scenario played out in real-life for Pat Bloom in 2001. She ended up undergoing a double mastectomy, resulting in a six week leave of absence, followed by several reconstructive surgeries. She did this all while continuing to teach first grade at Brownsville Elementary School in Crozet, VA. We spoke to Pat, who is now retired and enjoying life with her 5 grandchildren, about what her experience battling breast cancer as a teacher taught her. We also discussed advice she would give to current teachers about taking care of ourselves, now that she has years of retirement to add some perspective. Below are her thoughts. We hope you take some of them to heart.
On Battling Cancer
First and foremost, Pat encouraged all people to get their regular check-ups and mammograms, since it was a routine mammogram that detected her cancer. She also stressed the need to know you family history. Pat had lost two aunts to breast cancer, and her mother died of pancreatic cancer. This caused her to be at greater risk for developing breast cancer.
She also encouraged people battling cancer to listen to their doctors, since they are the experts. Pat wasn’t sure if she should have all of the reconstructive surgeries recommended by her oncologist, including breast implants, creation of a nipple, and tattooing of an areola. However, once all of the procedures were complete, she was happy she had endured the discomfort and followed her doctor’s advice. As she put it, “I felt whole again.”
As far as larger takeaways from battling cancer, Pat said she realized even more how precious her students were. Though they were only six years old, they were a source of comfort and always kept her smiling. She also said she no longer “sweats the small stuff.” She said cancer puts everything into perspective so we understand what is important. This led her to be a more relaxed and loving teacher, mother, friend and spouse.
On Supporting Each Other
Pat’s advice on helping colleagues who are facing illness is simple: “be a friend.” Also, consider doing things to support the family of the person who is ill because the entire family struggles when there is a major illness. She said her colleagues at Brownsville Elementary were amazingly supportive. They started a rotation of meals so her family received a dinner each week. This helped her husband a lot. Her son and daughter went off to college, and her colleagues even sent them care packages because they knew Pat wouldn’t be able to. This actually worried her children a little bit, since it made their mom’s health struggles real for them, but it was a very nice gesture.
On Taking Care of Ourselves
Pat said she knows all too well that teaching can be stressful and overwhelming. Still, she encourages teachers to try to get in some exercise each week and eat as healthy as possible. These two things make such an impact on quality of life. When she taught, Pat would go from school to the gym in the afternoon to get a work-out in before going home to her family. Now in retirement she does a jazzercise class in the mornings. As she put it, “I used to exercise to work out all the stress of the day. Now I exercise to get energy for the day.” Whichever of these two works for you, try to make it happen!
Since retiring Pat has also been a part of a walking club. They meet up at their local high school track or hiking trails or sometimes even walking trails that stop at a local winery :) She said this club has been a great way to socialize and keep up healthy habits. A walking club at lunch or before or after school is something teachers anywhere could organize.